Fear and Joy

Sport is fear and sport is joy.

The joy of victory, of vanquishing opponents not by shutting them out, but overwhelming them in a fury of thrilling improvisation.
The joy of belief, like a sudden shaft of spring sunlight, instantly warming the heart, pushing aside the memories of countless dismal winters, decades of grumbling hopelessness and wishful thinking.
The joy of belonging, the simple pleasure of sharing a glance with fellow fans, like we’re all in on some gigantic exciting secret.

But it’s a joy haunted by fear.

A fear that at any moment, we might wake up.
A fear that we might find the dream that had brought us such joy, such hope, dissipating from our minds like a morning mist.
A fear that months later, years later, we'll cast our minds back, and struggle to remember that glorious sensation, that golden age when we believed anything was possible.

Liverpool versus Manchester City was a tale of fear and joy.



For the first half hour, joy prevailed.
We were fearless. Flowing.
Playing like carefree kids in the park.
A teenager has the coolest head of all, slotting home, in front of the Kop.
More pressure, roars and gasps, until a bullet header prompts delirium.
How we jumped and bounced and yelled with joy.

Buzzing, we look down from our heady clouds.
And wonder at how high we really are.
And realise what a long way that would be to fall. 

Blue waves begin to threaten, we sense the gusts of a gathering storm.
The buzz of joy becomes a tingle of fear.
How similar they feel, a pulsating throb in our throats.
Close shaves endured, but we stand firm. Just about.

At last, half time.
We blow out our cheeks, and wipe our palms dry.
We nudge those beside us, smile and dare to dream.

When we return to the field, we know it’s out there.
Somewhere. Waiting, lurking.
We hoped our joy would protect us, insulate us.
But fear was stalking us, ready to shock us with its sudden pounce.

Their first goal triggered a cascade of uncertainty and doubt.
Fear does funny things to the limbs, it dizzies the mind.
Once we played like warriors, now we flounder like drunken clowns.
Five minutes of increasing anxiety culminates aptly.
We contrive to scramble the ball into our own net.

Now we look down, and realise what a long, long way it is to fall.
How painful it will be to hit the ground.
When there’s no margin for error, it’s never just a football match.
It becomes a trial of character.
Every mistake could be the one that brings everyone crashing down.
The moment that destroys the dream.

Now it’s not about pressing and diamonds, or holding midfielders.
Or tactical reshuffles and runs between the lines.
It’s about overcoming the fear, the instinct to run and hide.
The basic primal instinct to stay safe.

How do you fight the desire to flee?
Does a dressing room mantra spring to mind?
Or a psychiatrist’s counsel in a Teesside lilt.
That fear can never be dismissed, only mastered.

What if you discovered a magic ring?
What if when you slipped it on your finger, your every fear vanished.
Suddenly, where once were problems, now there are only possibilities.
You stop hesitating, and start being who you want to be.
Wouldn’t that be the most powerful artefact in the entire world?
Just imagine what you could achieve.
You could do anything.

A moment of bravery.
Then everything changed.
A young full-back leaping in to win a header, when he could have stood off.
A Brazilian fighting for the loose ball, earning it with his determination.
A kid from Wembley driving forward, spreading jitters among the men in blue.

Because the funny thing is, fear doesn’t take sides.
Fear stalks all equally.
Perhaps its insidious influence scuffed the ball to the edge of the box.
The Brazilian wasn’t afraid that he’d miss.
Courage enough not to demand another touch.
He trusted himself, and hit it instinctively.
And we lost ourselves in a glorious moment of redemptive bliss.

The game resumes, the ground in ferment.
Our collective rush of joy corroded again by our nagging fear.
This is the time for brave hearts and resolute minds.
Headers are won, desperate blocks are made.
One too recklessly, and we’re a man down.
Fear will do that.

At last, the whistle triggers an explosion of repressed emotion.

This does not fucking slip now!
This does NOT fucking slip.
Listen, listen!
This is gone.
We go to Norwich.
Exactly the same.
We go again.
Come on!

The leader exhorts: be brave once more lads.
Because the next game isn’t really against the men of Norwich City.
It’s against the doubts and anxieties in their own hearts.
Fear will be lurking at Carrow Road, waiting.
Each must face the anxiety of wanting it too much.
And the perilous complacency of not wanting it enough.
Disquiet mounting with every misplaced pass and wayward shot.
And suddenly we’re chasing a game we absolutely need to win.

We’re so high up now.
So close.
Such a way to fall.
How would we ever recover.

Were you ever this anxious playing footy in the park?
Can you remember those gloriously long summer days?
When we just ran, and laughed and played.
Just for the joy of it.
There might be a lesson there somewhere.
I do hope in growing up, I haven’t forgotten it.
Because just imagine the awesome possibilities
Of a life without fear.

You only die twice

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” 
-- Banksy

Alas. Iain Banks has passed away.

Since I started reading make-believe, I've invited many authors to paint pictures in my imagination. Tolkien inscribed medieval fantasies of heroes and monsters, dingy caves and gleaming swords. I've walked with Dickens around his London streets, amid a hubbub of hawkers, chancers and strivers, the poor and the privileged. I've walked the same streets with Conan Doyle, weaving chasing horse-drawn cabs through smog and smoke, in pursuit of baffling mysteries. And I've visited places I hope never to walk, through Orwell's nightmarish fairytales.

But, for me, Iain Banks was different; I'd once felt the warmth of his handshake, I'd heard his voice, I'd looked into his eyes. We had shared the same time and space - and it's funny how few authors you can say that about, these strangers who you invite into your mind, with their Trojan horses of words. The man himself was funny, witty, infectiously enthusiastic and endearingly humble; he described himself as a professional scribbler, he addressed his audience as 'chums'. And he could conjure worlds that staggered the imagination. He quickly became my favourite author.

Orwell's lasting gift to humanity was his warning of how technology can enslave us. Not a manifesto, but a vision, a nightmare that could be painted into any receptive imagination. A story with characters and emotions, morals and motivations, hopes and dreams. We seem to understand ideas better that way.

How apt that at this very moment, shadowy systems are sifting through the digital residue of our lives, like Philip K Dick's precogs, trying to pre-emptively identify threats to our society. Its advocates tell us: "If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear". But when communications are stripped of their context and people become just another node in a graph, all you can see is guilt by association. Suspicion exceeds threshold. Computer says Yes.

Literature, particularly science-fiction, warns us of eventualities that have not yet come to pass, like a postcard from a possible future, detailing the dystopias into which we might sleepwalk. But sci-fi can also inspire.

Banks wrote 11 books featuring The Culture, a post-scarcity civilization. As its name suggests, this was a decentralised anarchy, its trillions of diverse citizens united by their shared values, language and ideals rather than leaders and government. It was a symbiotic society of God-like machine intelligences ('minds') and humanoids. Individual minds kept things running at a galactic scale, and the humanoid citizens kept things real. At first, the relationship between the two might seem like that between Masters and their Pets, but you should make your own mind up.

The Culture is the finest utopia in literature. Its creator was an idealist who believed that technology need not result in a dark, sinister dictatorship. Technology could also liberate, allowing the emergence of a rationalist anarchy, one without religion, politics and empire-building. The Culture was an inherently compassionate, libertarian society, governed by good manners and individual consciences. To read his descriptions of what humanity could become made the mind soar and the heart ache, like Caliban crying out to dream some more.

In his tribute Neil Gaiman said: "If you've never read any of his books, read one of his books. Then read another. Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing." I agree completely, and so my own tribute to the man is to encourage you to read some of his words.

Iain Banks was best-known for two books in particular. One is his macabre d├ębut novel The Wasp Factory, ("What's The Wasp Factory about?" its author was once asked, replying: "Oh, it's about 180 pages"). Also justifiably famous is the brilliant family-with-secrets tale The Crow Road ("We continue in our children, and in our works, and in the memories of others; we continue in our dust and ash"), which was adapted for TV by the BBC. But he also wrote 27 others, and of those, here are 5 you might like to get you started...



Consider Phlebas


"Vavatch lay in space like a god's bracelet. The fourteen-million kilometre hoop glittered and sparkled, blue and gold against the jet black gulf of space beyond."

If you've never read any of Iain Banks' science fiction, start with this, his first book. Against the backdrop of a galactic war and destruction on an epic scale, we learn of a symbiotic human-machine society ('The Culture') from the viewpoint of Horza, the story's protagonist. To Horza, the Culture is an arrogant robot cabal with a God-complex, intent on galactic imperialism, and he absolutely hates it. But what difference can a mere mortal make in a war between the Gods? This is the story Homer would have written if he'd envisaged kilometre-long spaceships. 

Starship and Ringworld
I once went to a book reading where Banks was asked what Consider Phlebas was all about. With characteristic modesty he said: "It's about a sailor gets shipwrecked, falls in with a bunch of pirates, and joins a quest to steal a fantastic treasure from a haunted island guarded by a monster."

All of which explains the book's curious title, a reference to the shipwrecked sailor in T.S Eliot's poem The Wasteland.

This book is the epitome of Brian Aldiss's notion of "Widescreen Baroque", a shockingly thrilling movie in your head with an infinite budget, awesome sets and imagination-stretching special effects. The ultimate unfilmable blockbuster for the cinema between your ears. Glorious.



Use of Weapons


"The bomb lives only as it is falling."

The 2nd Culture novel, The Player of Games is superb, but the 3rd is a genuine must-read, a story as brilliantly inventive as its protagonist - a mercenary with a talent for improvising weapons who is directed by the Culture's intelligence division, (euphemistically named Special Circumstances). 

Battleship and Chair
Last summer, I was lucky enough to see Iain Banks spend a couple of hours talking about this book; as it happened, it was one of his last public appearances. There was plenty to talk about, the story is like a double helix, alternate chapters proceed forwards from the present and backwards into the past, ultimately colliding in a shattering conclusion.

During his talk Banks revealed this was the first Culture book he wrote, and grew from the author's desire to create the ultimate Empire of Good Intentions.

But those who claim the moral high-ground can find the temptation to meddle irresistible. It is a parable for our times, written decades ago; but like all great stories, it now seems eerily prescient. This classic deserves to be better known. Just brilliant.




Walking on Glass


"The Wars were not, of course, between Good and Evil at all, as non-combatants of every species always assumed, but between Banality and Interest."

The backcover synopsis doesn't begin to do justice to this outstanding book. Some guy is in love, there's another guy who's rather paranoid, and a third guy who's trapped in a castle. So what?

But trust me, from these seemingly unremarkable scenarios a brilliantly imaginative story emerges. You'll start by laughing at crazy world of the paranoid Grout, a delusional London misfit convinced he's an exiled soldier in a far-flung conflict. Then we're introduced to Quiss, and we suddenly leave the familiar surroundings of '80s London to encounter a surreal metaphysical conflict. Now Grout doesn't seem as crazy. A masterly piece of storytelling.

The Game Room by Isona Rigau Heras
But the highlight of the book is the surreal neo-gothic castle made of slate, glass and books that Quiss inhabits. It's as if Mervyn Peake had written Gormenghast after watching the film Being John Malkovich.

This is tale in the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges, the familiar clashing with the fantastic. And despite not being a sci-fi book it still induces vertigo in the imagination, like only the best fantasies can do. Walking on Glass is one of my favourite books.




Against a Dark Background


“People were always sorry. Sorry they had done what they had done, sorry they were doing what they were doing, sorry they were going to do what they were going to do; but they still did whatever it is. The sorrow never stopped them; it just made them feel better. And so the sorrow never stopped.” 

Banks wrote three sci-fi novels that didn't feature The Culture, the other two: Feersum Endjinn and The Algebraist definitely deserve to be read, but as this list is an introduction to Banks' canon, I'm going to recommend this, a back-to-basics sci-fi novel.

What sets this book apart is there is no interstellar travel, no God-like artificial intelligences, and no aliens. In their place are assassins, apocalyptic weapons, crazy gadgets and almost cartoonish ultra-violence.

This is a solar-system-wide treasure hunt through some brilliantly imagined locations. It is also terrific fun; it will make you wonder how Holywood studios can routinely spend several hundred million dollars making sci-fi movies so dull, and why they never seem to make anything anywhere near as inventive as this.




The Bridge


"There was another part of him which seemed like a hawk or an eagle; hungry and cruel and fanatically keen-eyed. Self-pity lasted a matter of seconds in the open; then the bird of prey fell on it, tearing it, ripping it. The bird was the real world, a mercenary dispatched by his embarrassed conscience, the angry voice of all the people in the world, that vast majority who were worse off than he was."


A man wakes up on a bridge the size of a city. He has amnesia, he doesn't know who he is, or where he is - and his doctor doesn't seem to be in any hurry to cure him. So he spends his days exploring his strange new surroundings, and his nights in bizarre, disturbing dreams. 

If you liked the TV series Life on Mars, you'll love this, the original 'trapped in your head' fantasy. A Kafkaesque tale of surreal happenings, fantastic adventures, love, loss, and self-discovery. This is a fantasy with a distinctly Scottish flavour, with a hat-tip to Alasdair Gray's cult dystopian novel Lanark; one character's dialogue is phonetically rendered in Scots dialect, years before Trainspotting. Banks considered it his finest work; it must be good.



A great author achieves an type of immortality few of us will ever obtain. An author's words will outlast them, propagating through new generations of readers. I hope you'll be one of them, that his stories will entertain and inspire you. And I hope it will be a long, long time indeed until the name of Iain Banks is spoken for the last time.

Or as his friend Ken MacLeod said, "He was one of our very best, a star whose light will travel a long way, and fall on places not yet built."

I wish you many happy imaginings.


The Social Network Analysis of Football Matches

  • "Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple." -- Bill Shankly
 
  • "Football is simple. But nothing is more difficult than playing simple football." -- Johan Cruyff

Did you know that several academics have used network analysis in an attempt to derive insights into the beautiful game?

During the 2010 World Cup, FIFA analysts compiled data listing every pass exchanged between players, and put it online (unfortunately it seems to have disappeared since then). This data was used by researchers at Queen Mary University of London to create a network theory explanation of how each team played. There's also a media-friendly summary of their work, and a more detailed write-up in the following paper:  

And the QMUL group aren’t the only researchers seeking to apply network analysis to football, there’s also the long-running ARSFutbol research group at the university of Buenos Aires. Some of their work looks very interesting, it's in Spanish, but Google Translate will help you read it in your own language.

I also found another paper analysing the 2010 World Cup from some Spanish researchers:

As this BBC article explains, most big clubs now have a team of data analysts, and companies like Prozone produce detailed data on every aspect of what happens on the pitch. Unfortunately clubs pay a lot of money for Prozone data, so it's unlikely to be publicly available; so if you're hoping to do some bedroom-based analysis, you might be out of luck.

Not all are convinced of the value of this type of analysis, mind you. Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas said: “I have never used Prozone. I don't use it because I don't believe in it". Whereas other managers, like Rafa Benitez, are more keen on the data-driven approach.

That network theory might be applied to football is not particularly surprising. After all, football is a passing game, and interactions between players are fundamental to a successful team. Hence when we fans watch players playing well, we frequently call them “influential”. And network theory has proven to be especially good in determining who or what is influential amongst the millions of documents now online.

By comparison with the Byzantine complexity of online content, analysing what happens on a football pitch seems child's play. The graph of a football match will only have 22 players (nodes), a handful more if you include substitutes.

However, to paraphrase Cruyff: calculating the numbers is simple, but deriving useful insights from them - that's difficult. For instance, say you notice a lot of passes are going through your centre-forward (he has high betweenness in the network jargon), is that a good thing? Was that part of your team's plan? Or should you be yelling at your centre-forward to get into the bloody box and to start causing some fecking mayhem?
 
Does network analysis have any value to our understanding of football? Will it one day be able to quantify what football professionals have come to understand intuitively - demystifying it for the rest of us? Or perhaps the spirit of football will always defy analysis, generating as many opinions as there are fans watching it. After all, what model could ever hope to explain the Miracle of Istanbul...

Run the Experiment

A few years ago I built a system to create social networks by mining online conversations. The idea was that from these networks I could determine (amongst other things) who was talking about a particular topic, and the relative influence of each speaker.

I've been interested in the science of social networks ever since, and so I've really enjoyed re-acquainting myself with the theory and practice of networks during Lada Adamic's excellent Social Network Analysis course.

Then a few weeks back, a question about the practical application of social networks appeared in my Quora feed: "How did Google's creators realise the PageRank algorithm would be a useful indicator of good search results?"

It's a good question, because it goes back to the dawn of the information age, when pioneering thinkers had begun to contemplate how to make sense of the massive amount of knowledge that would inevitably become accessible. Vannevar Bush's classic article As We May Think suggested using a citation index to find influential information. Then in the 50s, Eugene Garfield developed the idea of impact factors, using citations to empirically calculate the influence of academic papers.

But citation analysis is not trivial to calculate, especially if the documents in question don't even have an index, and are literally dispersed across the globe. So the first internet search engines simply counted keywords; it was the pragmatic thing to do.

  • One in 100 million: how do you find what you're looking for? (with metaphor by Ai Weiwei)
It turns out finding things is hard, especially when there's a lot to sift through. And so here begins the fascinating story of the PageRank algorithm - and Google - the company formed to exploit it, which is nicely told in the first few chapters of John Battelle's book, The Search.

It began with a brave, complicated, highly ambitious experiment:

"In graduate school at Stanford University, I had about ten different ideas of things I wanted to do, and one of them was to look at the link structure of the web. My advisor, Terry Winograd, picked that one out and said, 'Well, that one seems like a really good idea.' So I give him credit for that." -- Larry Page

So whilst the idea of citation analysis wasn't new, what was novel was the ambition of applying it to the whole worldwide web, which by 1996 was at least 10 million documents, and growing rapidly.

In Battelle's book Terry Winograd recollects that what he didn't say when recommending the topic to Larry Page was that he thought the task was impossible in practice. But knowing when to hold your peace, and trust your student to explore the topic without prejudice, is the hallmark of a great mentor.

And Winograd was right not to dampen Page's enthusiasm, because once you start trying to implement citation analysis on a graph as gigantic as the web you're forced to confront all sorts of challenges.

For instance: one non-trivial problem is the graph you're trying to analyse is enormous, far beyond what would fit into the memory of even the largest supercomputer. And Page and Brin were grad students without budgets at the time, they would have to make do with desktops they could beg and borrow.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and the constraints of their available computing resources became the impetus behind their solution. They would split the graph into smaller individually computable fragments. They would distribute each fragment to one of their processors, analyse it, collect the results centrally, and integrate them into an index.

As well as technical challenges, there were theoretical ones. For example, by nature citations form a directed graph, and because of the way websites are interlinked, it's easy for any analysis algorithm to get stuck in a closed loop.  Page's solution was to introduce the concept of the 'Random Surfer', who'd visit a portion of a graph, explore it to build up a local picture of what's important, and then get bored after several clicks and switch to a random page in a completely new region of the network.

This approach to computing citation analysis using a divide and conquer approach was novel, because no-one had ever had the means or the motivation to analyse such a massive network. The breakthrough was making the problem tractable, creating an infrastructure and algorithm that allowed the network to be explored and understood in small fragments. This allowed the seemingly overwhelming challenge of analysing the web to be divided up. Then Page and Brin built a search engine called BackRub to utilise the new PageRank index, and by doing so were able to prove it would scale: the more they processed, the better their results.

Returning to the original question; when did they realize the PageRank algorithm would be a useful indicator of good search results?

"Page and Brin noticed that BackRub's results were superior to those from existing search engines like AltaVista and Excite, which often returned irrelevant listings. 'They were looking only at text and not considering this other signal' Page recalls. That signal is now better known as PageRank. To test whether it worked well in a search application, Brin and Page hacked together a BackRub search tool. It searched only the words in page titles and applied PageRank to sort the results by relevance, but its results were so far superior to the usual search engines - which ranked mostly on keywords - that Page and Brin knew they were onto something big." -- John Battelle

In other words, like all good scientists, Page and Brin knew PageRank would be great after they ran the experiment, saw the results, and saw how exceptional they were.

So as well as a fascinating story, there's a marvellous moral in the genesis of Google.
It's not enough to have a great idea.
You need to build it.
You need to prove it.


A crowd of precious individuals

Twenty-three and a half years ago.
My goodness. I was just a naive teenager.
Dad was listening to the game on the radio. He called upstairs, to tell me "something's happened".
I shooed him away. I wanted to watch the game on Match of the Day later that night without knowing the score.
How antiquated that time seems now, a bygone age.
Soon after, he told me the game had been abandoned.
Hours later, on the evening news, I learnt that over 50 fans had died.

I remember the bewilderment. 50 dead? What? How?
It was only a football match.
By Monday over 90 were listed dead, and through the shock the slander started.
Bloody hooligans! No tickets! They rushed the gates! Drunken scum!
I remembered Heysel; and to my eternal regret, my sorrow was poisoned with shame.
Months later, watching a television documentary, I learned what really happened.
How 95 people could die at a football match. Horribly, as it turns out.
And I wept.

The more I learnt, the more I raged at the inhumanity of the police.
How they saw us as a problem to be managed, not citizens to safeguard.
How they saw football fans, their fellow countrymen, as a chaotic mob.
As a rabble to be caged, rather than thousands of fragile, precious individuals.

Individually, we are so small. We trust the law will give us justice.
But our system of justice was rotten.
Granting impunity to the incompetent, whilst treating the victims with contempt.
A slander, an injustice, that has persisted for 23 years.

Today - at last - an independent commission published its long awaited report, finally nailing the wretched lies and revealing the truth.

The commission reported that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the South Yorkshire police and emergency services made 'strenuous attempts' to deflect blame for the crush onto the victims. That the police took blood from every victim, including children, testing for the presence of alcohol in an attempt to 'impugn their reputations'. That 116 of 164 police statements were 'amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable to South Yorkshire police'. When the prime minister announced this in parliament, the chamber collectively gasped.

Put simply, not only have hundreds of families suffered the loss of a loved one, but they've been victims of an institutionalised cover-up. Remember those who died were not part of a reckless mob, they were ordinary folk just like you and me. And they walked unwittingly to their deaths. Yet those in authority decided their own reputations were worth far more than the truth, a truth that might help bring some closure to the grieving, a truth that one day, might save your life.

The truth matters because the truth keeps us safe.

Before Hillsborough, I'd experienced standing in heaving crowds, in shitty football grounds, being lifted and carried by ominous waves of surging people. Looking back, those memories make me shiver.

Crush disasters don't happen because of drunken crowds, or ticket-less fans trying to sneak in for free. They happen because crowds are poorly managed, when those in authority forget their fundamental duty of care, and start treating individuals like ball bearings, to be pushed down pipes.

Brian Reade memorably wrote of the 96: "Never forget that for English football's bright tomorrow, they gave their todays".

Never forget their sacrifice; the lessons bought with their blood keep you safe when you join a throng of thousands on the way to match or a concert, or stand in a crowd 10-deep on a packed subterranean tube platform.

From today, the truth can be told: that on April 15th, 1989, a crowd of precious individuals gathered to watch a football match, that their custodians failed them utterly, and then besmirched and blamed them, and perpetuated a disgraceful lie that has lasted for 23 years.

And understanding why is more than putting the record straight, it's about the kind of society we want to live in, one where the powerful protect the weak, and there's truth and justice for all.



Lean Football

What's the connection between a football club and a lean startup?

Rafa Benitez recently talked about being a data-driven football manager, which I found very interesting, because what Rafa was describing sounded a lot like the Build - Measure - Learn loop employed by lean startups.

In the business world, this process is popular with startups because they're attempting to make decisions in environments of considerable uncertainty. They don't know how good their product is, or even if anyone will buy it. So they need to test their assumptions, and they need to incorporate what they learn into the next version of their product.

The lean startup idea is about getting away from the 'Great Man' theory of leadership - that good decisions are informed, not opinionated, and driven by data rather than ego. This is scientific decision-making: you run experiments, you test your hypothesises, because nature can not be fooled. Remember, lean is not a synonym for quick and cheap, lean is a synonym for quick and experimentally proved.

Sport is a very different kind of experiment, a test where you get the examination first, and the lessons afterwards - as the baseball pitcher Vernon Law put it.

Though just like in the business world, in the football world is dominated by 'Great Men' - patriarchs with decades of success behind them - who reign autocratically over the biggest clubs. The natural order of things seems to be Great Men rule Great Clubs with Great Transfer Budgets funded by Great Plutocrats (or Great Debt). Which made me wonder whether the Reign of the Great Men was inevitable and eternal, or whether the football world might ever witness the the kind of disruption the technology world has seen.

So I began to think about where lean principles have been applied to football. Looking back, was Rafa attempting to implement a lean approach when he was in charge of Liverpool? At the time, I remember Rafa being mocked for his insistence on "facts" and "qualitee" - and derided as being a cold, passionless strategist. Then again, we'd expect an approach based on objectivity to be much better at answering "how do I get the best out of each of my players?" than answering "how do I win matches in the most eye-pleasingly way possible?"

One form of evidence-based decision-making that has definitely been applied to sport is sabermetrics, currently in vogue having been popularised by the book and film Moneyball. Originally conceived in baseball, it seeks to find under-valued players by using stats to quantify talent. Whilst this can work well in baseball, which is effectively a series of one-on-one set pieces, it is more challenging in football, which is a much more dynamic team game.

In baseball, batting is easy to score, the striker either hits it or doesn’t. In football, a striker might score lots of goals, but understanding why is more complicated. Perhaps they play with several creative players, perhaps their style of play exploits weaker defenders, perhaps the manager has made playing football fun, or he's tailored the team's approach to suit their star man.

This makes it difficult to identify a talented, but under-valued, footballer through stats alone - because much of what makes a player exceptional isn’t actually evident in stats. This is why scouts repeatedly go to watch players in person, and why understanding a player’s personality is so important. A great team can make an average player look exceptional. Scouts attempt to assess a player’s natural talent.

The problem is that the evidence used in moneyball decision-making has been collected from the player's past. A player that has proved his worth in one team will not necessarily transfer that success to his new team. The lean strategy would be to identify lots of cheap prospects, put them into your team, and test them. If they work, great! - if not, that's a shame, we move on.

The sorry tale of Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing provides a chastening lesson on basing your decisions on stats. In January 2011, Liverpool's then director of football, Damien Comolli, was tasked with quickly identifying a successor to the outgoing Fernando Torres. His eyes settled on Andy Carroll, a tall, strong Englishman then in great form for a resurgent Newcastle.

After an inauspicious start to his Liverpool career, it was clear Carroll wasn't getting the service that allowed him to thrive at Newcastle. So what about that Downing fella - he's a winger, and he's created more chances than any other player in the Premiership last season. Sign him, he creates chances, Carroll scores the goals, we win games. Too easy!

Now if your prospect is rated at £20 million pounds, and the stats say he’s one of the best in the country, the logic of moneyball is to say: no, don't do it - he’s too expensive. Forget the English Premium, we’ll look for someone similar here or abroad, after all there’s a lot of people playing football worldwide - as Arsene Wegner continues to demonstrate masterfully.

A £20m purchase also goes against the principles of the lean strategy, because you can’t afford the experiment to fail. As it happened, during the 2011-12 season, the experiment did fail: Carroll and Downing performed poorly, and there was no plan B. With our football having no direction, our Director of Football departed.

Yet one team that did use the moneyball approach shrewdly was Newcastle United, who quietly bought talented - but unheralded - players from the European leagues. Without a benevolent plutocrat to back them, Newcastle are forced to operate like any normal business, buy cheaply, add value, enjoy its advantages, and use profits on sales to fund growth.

In the coming years, as UEFA introduces its long-overdue Financial Fair Play regulations I hope the long-forgotten art of running a football club like a business will be revived. Just as in any business, once dominant giants are inevitably overtaken by upstarts. Historic clubs like Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal must now strive to compete against the expensively renovated plutocrat project clubs like Man City and Chelsea - and not forgetting Man Utd, who've dominated the last two decades through their commercial savvy and an exceptional ability to nurture talent.

New kit; means business
As we Liverpool fans look back on a season of considerable disappointment, with the league won by one billionaire-backed club, and the Champions League final being contested by another, what next?

When we sing "They say are days are numbered, we're not famous anymore" we celebrate that we went from being a laughing stock to the best team in Europe in the space of a few years. Like 1999 and 2004, we must rebuild again, and we are missing more than just a piece from the jigsaw.

It was very sad to see King Kenny go, but in attributing our dismal last league campaign to bad luck he revealed he didn't properly understand what was going wrong, or how to put it right. Read through this excellent discussion of our lack of on-field intelligence, for example, and then tell me if you still believe in the power of bad luck.

Clive Woodward's "Thanks, you just cost us the World Cup" approach sounds harsh, but it needs to be said. Just as in business, mistakes need to be called, in order to be understood. Players need to understand why they're making mistakes before they can hope to correct them. Zen temple. Battlefield. Football field. The path to mastery is the same.

King Kenny had natural talent and intelligence in abundance, together they made him our greatest ever player. But he was unable to teach his football intelligence to others, perhaps he expected his men to intuitively understand the game, like he did. Whereas Rafa Benitez believed in data, he would scour videos for hours, so he could tell Torres where he should be in the box.

Like a man in charge of an ailing family business, Kenny managed by instinct, by sentiment. I believe we need a different kind of manager, a data-driven manager, who believes in making his own luck. Someone with fresh ideas, who can coach our players into better individuals, and collectively fashion them into a superior team. A startup manager.

Liverpool must become an upstart club again. 
One that's young, agile, innovative and fearless.

For Liverpool fans, 2005 to 2009 now seems like a glorious age of over-achievement.
Like many startups, Rafa's Liverpool FC enjoyed a meteoric rise and sudden fall.

But as Beckett said:
"Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Vive le sport.

How to give a meaningful gift

Giving someone a meaningful gift is difficult.
We want the gift to say what we feel:
“I love you!”
  “Your life is so adventurous!”
    “You’re gorgeous!”
      “I treasure your friendship!”
        “You’re unique!”
But our gift can not talk.
So we buy something expensive and hope it conveys the right messages.
Or, we just convert our love into money, and send a gift voucher.

Why is giving a meaningful gift so difficult?
How did we end up expressing our love through money?
Why do we try to send messages through objects rather than expressing how we feel?
Are our words really that worthless?
After all, what could be nicer than accidentally overhearing someone say something lovely about you?

Everyone wants to be appreciated, and secretly, we covet praise. It makes us feel good. It reinforces our social bonds, it makes us feel accepted, part of the tribe. Without it, we feel ostracised, rejected, and lonely.

We've even invented a medium to convey our appreciation - the greetings card. So why is a humble handwritten card not the most treasured gift one can receive? We do we spend so lavishly on products to demonstrate our affection?

Alas, senders of greetings cards rarely open their hearts to express how they really feel. Instead they quickly scribble what they believe they’re expected to write; like a safe message wishing the recipient a lovely birthday, that they’re thinking about them, and they love them lots. What goes unsaid is why they love them, what makes them so unique, and why they absolutely treasure the time they share together.

Tell those close to you how you feel, before it's too late! Friends can drift apart, family members can move far away, and sudden tragedies can silence any one of us. What record will there be of the journey you shared? Do not save your feelings for a memorial. Tell them now.

And what power words have.

A couple of years ago, a friend was feeling down, so we contacted her friends and asked them: what is it about her you love so much? And they told us: scores of beautiful messages, heartfelt words, and quirky in-jokes. It gave us goosebumps. We married each comment to an image, and made them into a hardback book. When we gave her the book, she read it, then she smiled, and then she cried. She hadn’t realised how much she was loved. Few of us do.

Her friends loved it too, we’d provided an opportunity to truly tell her how much she meant to them. It was as if we’d given them all permission to say something heartfelt. Our creation had brought joy to our small world of friends, and it felt awesome. 

Producing this first book was tremendously time-consuming, unexpectedly hard work, but as Paul Graham says, at the heart of every good venture is a schlep - a tedious task you believe you can do better. Still, we sat on the idea for a year, thinking someone should do something.
The realisation dawned slowly; gift giving was broken, and we had an opportunity to fix it.
We imagined a social gift, where feelgood messages of appreciation didn’t just accompany the gift, they were the gift.

And so we created gleambook.

The idea was to bring friends together to create unique, heartfelt gifts. Now all you need to do is say something nice, and invite your friends to do the same, and we take care of the hard work. From the collected comments we design and produce a truly unique work of art, a physical artifact, a book full of pages that look like this:


And you get to see your loved one gleam.

How much better it is, to give the gift of feeling good.

Come and say hello at gleambook.
We’d love to hear from you.

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